From its humbled beginnings as picturesque farmland, to the famed Playboy Club-Hotel and the eccentric recording studio days to Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, this land has a story to tell.
In 1834, government surveyor John Brink mapped the region and named the lake in honor of his hometown, Geneva, New York. Chief Big Foot and his people were forced to leave two years later and the village of Geneva was incorporated in 1844.
The two events that bore the greatest influence on Lake Geneva’s popularity were the re-introduction of passenger rail service and the Great Chicago Fire, both of which took place in 1871.
The official groundbreaking of the Lake Geneva Playboy Club Hotel took place on Friday, August 26, 1966, with typical Hefner flourish. It took three years to plan and construct the 265,000-square-foot building.
Seven interconnected buildings made up the five-acre central complex overlooking the manmade Playboy Lake. The structures had a touch of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin in their design, emulating the Prairie Style architecture that Wright is most often associated with, featuring wide expanses of bronze-tinted solar glass that seemed to invite the world outside to come in.
In the summer of 1968, the Playboy Club opened The Brute. The Brute’s 68 bunkers and average green of 8,000 square feet was consistently named among the nation’s best, and remains one of Wisconsin’s golf treasures.
Grand Geneva resort opened on May 6, 1968 as The Lake Geneva Playboy Club Hotel, with Hefner, members of his inner circle, local dignitaries and the Mayor of Lake Geneva in attendance. The resort offered horse stables, an airport, a ski lodge, and two tournament-style golf courses, complete with a 15-acre lake and wildlife refuge. Guests could skeet and trap shoot or exercise in the resort’s fitness center and indoor and outdoor swimming pools. Dining options included four restaurants and four bars. The favorite attraction? Approximately 60 beautiful girls in rabbit costumes seen parading the campus.
The no-name sculpture was constructed in 1969 by sculptor and Lake Geneva resident Charles Moelter. When guests observe the enormous untitled sculpture on the 16th tee of the Brute golf course, they often ask “what is it?” A frustrated golfer? An animal? Part of human anatomy? According to Moelter the answer is yes, “use your imagination, it is still titillating minds and that is what it was meant to do.”
Having its own airport was another bonus for guests. Many pilots merely flew in for lunch and departed soon after. Landing fees were $3 in the mid- 1970’s, bringing in about $18,000 per year.
Grubbing and staking of the golf course began in September and by October, 1971. One of the 18 hole courses, the par 71, 6,900-yard Briar Patch was a Scottish design by Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye.
Bill Pullen served as the Managing Director of The Playboy Club from 1970 to 1972. While there he had his share of celebrity encounters. Pullen remembers Sonny and Cher’s 1971 performance “One evening Cher wanted to work as a bunny in the Playmate Bar. She wanted to see if anyone would recognize her! We had to get Hugh Hefner’s special permission for her to do this. He also gave his permission to have a little bunny outfit made for Chastity, their daughter who was about 3 years old then.” Pullen also remembers “We also did a boxing exhibition featuring George Foreman and Ernie Terrell doing three-round exhibitions. For that, we built a boxing ring in the middle of the conference center. That was also televised.”
The ski lodge was designed in the shape of two intersecting snowflakes by Alexander Mcllvaine, the architect who created the Sqauw Valley complex for the 1960 Winter Olympics in California. The ski slopes were originally intended only for the private use of Playboy Club members, but in 1971, with the promotion of group lessons to school and business groups, the slopes were opened to the skiing public.
Many other celebrities such as Bob Hope, Sonny & Cher, Tony Bennett, Liza Minelli, Diahann Carroll, Peggy Lee, The Smothers Brothers, Frankie Avalon, The Monkees, Milton Berle, George Carlin, Mel Torme, Jerry Lewis, Ann Margret, Doc Severinsen, Joan Rivers, Bobby Rydell, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Phyllis Diller and Louie Nye entertained crowds at the Lake Geneva Playboy Hotel.
Shade Tree recording studio officially opened in early 1978. Performers who passed through Lake Geneva included some of the music industry’s biggest names: John Cougar Mellencamp, Survivor, T’Pau, Cheap Trick, Guns and Roses, Bon Jovi, Adrian Belew, Robert Plant of Led Zeplin, Enuf Z’nuf, Crash Test Dummies, Nine Inch Nails, Live, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many more. All of these artists at one time or another recorded music in what is now an engineering office at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa.
On March 24, 1982 the Great Gorge and the Lake Geneva Playboy Clubs were sold to Americana Hotels and the familiar welcoming signs at the entrance were dismantled and removed.
Singer John Denver and his father would fly in on their private plane and play a few rounds. Baseball legend Mickey Mantle hit the links here. So too did NFL running backs O.J. Simpson, Gale Sayers, and Jim Brown. Major League Baseball Players from the Brewers, the Cubs and the White Sox could also be found on the courses.
In 1993, the property was rescued by Marcus Hotels who paid just one-third of what Playboy sold it for in 1981. The resort was shut down in the fall of 1993 as renovation began and was rebranded as the Grand Geneva and repositioned as one of the premier resorts in the upper Midwest.
The Marcus renovation turned the complex into a state-of-the-art facility. The plans included a major reconfiguration of the interior that moved the registrations desk, shifted the indoor pool, and created a lobby lounge and living room space. It also enhanced and updated the restaurants and lounge.
Since opening Grand Geneva in 1994, the Marcus Corporation has worked to further enhance the quality of the resort, including three successful restaurants: Ristoranté Brissago, the Geneva ChopHouse, and the Grand Café.
In 1997, the Briar Patch underwent a major renovation by noted golf architect Bob Cupp, at which time it was renamed The Highlands. The former recording studio space was turned into an engineering office and the air strip was recertified and reopened.
In 2001 new recreation was added in the form of the Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark, a 50,000-square-foot, indoor/outdoor waterpark.
In 2005, the Marcus Corporation increased the convention space to 62,000 square feet of meeting space and exhibit area. They also added an eight thousand-square-foot ballroom in the center of the building to complement the convention space.
By 2009, major upgrades included expansion of the outdoor pool deck, featuring eight arching fountains, a California-style fire pit and dining area adjacent to the Geneva ChopHouse, and enhancements to the resort’s signature spa and salon. A complete remodel of all the guest rooms was completed with Seura television mirrors in all bathrooms (pictured above), while suites featured gas fireplaces, LCD flat-screen televisions, wet bars with granite counter tops and expanded bathrooms with large Jacuzzi tubs.
In May 2009, Grand Geneva broke ground for an herb and vegetable garden, which now provides fresh produce for the hotel’s five restaurants. In June 2009, the resort earned official certification from Travel Green Wisconsin.
To accommodate animal lovers, the pet-friendly resort launched a Pet Club in 2011.
In 2013, Grand Geneva was selected by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the top 10 golf resorts in the northern United States.
In May 2013, Grand Geneva opened The Geneva Club with an atmosphere similar to a home library. The Club includes a fireplace, bookshelves, comfortable seating and workstations for individuals and small groups, Wi-Fi Internet access, printers, and televisions for monitoring the day's events. Geneva Club guests can relax by the fire place or in our casual dining lounge where you can enjoy breakfast each morning, snacks and beverages throughout the day, along with hors d'oeuvres in the evening.
Opened 29 luxury villas ranging from studios to three bedrooms for guests wanting more space and added conveniences of a Lake Geneva vacation rental.